CHAPTER 18

IT was about a week later, that Nicholas Alexandrovitch, wearied by long captivity, was surprised late one evening to find on his supper-table a neatly folded silk handkerchief, together with a letter addressed to himself. Any news to a prisoner is always good news. He tore the envelope open with eager alacrity, and read with amazement the following brief communication:

"If Nicholas Alexandrovitch will securely tie round his face the accompanying handkerchief, and allow, without resistance, some persons to lead him out of his present abode into a fiaker, he will find himself restored to complete liberty. The persons entrusted to accompany Nicholas Alexandrovitch will wait upon him one hour after midnight."

It would have been more than folly to allow foolish pride to stand in the way of possible escape. The thought that this might be some dangerous trap flashed through his mind, only to be instantly dismissed; had his gaolers wished to do him further bodily harm, or to remove him to some other place of safety, they had every power to do so without the preliminary farce of apprising him of their intentions, or of requesting him to blindfold his own eyes.

One hour after midnight he was ready, the handkerchief tied round his face. He heard the door open and the sound of several footsteps; then he felt his hands taken hold of by some powerful grip, and was led through the room and down the stone stairs he had climbed a fortnight ago with such buoyancy of spirit. Evidently he was under heavy escort, for it seemed to him that someone was walking in front of him and someone behind, whilst on each side a third and fourth guardian held each of his wrists in a relentless grip.

He was helped into a fiaker, still blindfold and his wrists still tightly held, and after about a quarter of an hour's drive the vehicle stopped, the doors were opened, and Nicholas Alexandrovitch was helped to alight. It seemed to him that the hold on his wrists slackened, then was released altogether; the next moment he heard the doors of the fiaker slammed to, and the vehicle start off at a breathless gallop. He realised that he was free, and alone, and rapidly tore the handkerchief away from his face. He looked round him bewildered. The street in which he was, was long and deserted--a row of houses, all built on the same pattern, not very brilliantly lighted, not a soul in sight, but in the far distance the now fast disappearing fiaker a mere speck, which also was soon lost to view.

As if in a dream, and now knowing where he was, the Tsarevitch walked on for a little while at random, hoping to emerge soon on some more busy thoroughfare. Presently he met one or two passers-by, from whom he asked directions as to the best means of finding a vehicle at this hour of the morning, he being a stranager in the city and having lost his way.

The information was given him, and five minutes later Nicholas Alexandrovitch found himself once more in a fiaker, this time being driven rapidly in the direction of the Hotel Impérial.

In the vestibule his faithful Russian valet awaited him, whose joy at seeing his young master safe and well seemed unbounded. Behind him stood two or three official-looking personages, who saluted respectfully as the Tsarevitch alighted. Lavrovski was not there, but an elderly man with a decoration in his buttonhole advanced, as Nicholas beckoned to him to follow him to his rooms.

"No doubt, monsieur," said the Tsarevitch, "you are here for the purpose of giving me an explanation, how some miscreants succeeded in keeping the heir to the Russian throne under lock and key for fourteen days, before your minions managed to discover my whereabouts and forced them to let me go free?"

"Your Imperial Highness," replied the old official, "is justly wrathful at what must seem to you our unpardonable negligence, but--"

"You must have known I had mysteriously disappeared the night of the opera ball."

"Count Lavrovski only thought fit to inform His Majesty that your Imperial Highness was confined to your room with a slight indisposition."

"And--?"

"And it was not till four days ago that he arrived at Petersburg bearing the terrible news."

"You were told, of course, at once to set all your staff at work?"

"I was given no orders, your Imperial Highness; and no one, not even I, knows what passed between His Majesty and Count Lavrovski; nor was I officially informed of your Imperial Highness' terrible predicament. The day before yesterday I was ordered to take two of my chief officers with me, and with Stepán, your Imperial Highness' valet, to proceed at once to Vienna, and stay at this hotel under some assumed names, always ready to receive your Imperial Highness whenever you arrived."

"This all seems very mysterious; I cannot understand it. Are you, then, not to attempt to trace the daring abductors of my person?"

"We are only, it seems, to thank Heaven that your Imperial Highness has been once more providentially restored to us. That is all the information I have--officially."

"And privately?"

"Oh! mere conjectures."

"I must hear them."

"I will give them to your Imperial Highness for what they are worth. But it is not often that my long experience as chief of His Majesty's police leads my instinct on a wrong track. Before I started for Vienna, I had in my hand His Majesty's letter, granting a free pardon to the gang of Nihilists, headed by one named Dunajewski, who were waiting condemnation for their last attempt against the very life of our august monarch. The letter was accompanied with a free pass for all of them across the frontier, signed by His Majesty's own hand, and to which I was ordered to affix the official seal."

"And these Nihilists?"

"Were set free that very evening, and under safe escort crossed the frontier in the early hours of last night, when they were handed their passports, and left to go whither they chose."

"Even now I do not quite understand."

"An official telegram was sent from Russia announcing this unparalleled liberation of Nihilist convicts to every Viennese paper, who have published the news this morning."

And the Russian chief of police took from his pocket a copy of the Fremdenblatt and one or two other papers, and handed them over to the Tsarevitch.

"Then you think that I was taken as hostage?"

The Russian nodded.

"This is mere supposition on my part," he said.

"The right one, I feel sure, and my liberty was to be the price of that of these ruffians."

"That is why, no doubt, your Imperial Highness, the eyes and hands of the Russian police remained tied--" Then he added between his teeth, "For the present."

"And Lavrovski?"

The old Russian shrugged his shoulders.

"I will not have a hair of old Lavrovski's head touched," said the Tsarevitch impetuously; "he did enough to prevent my running after this mad adventure. He could do no more."

"He should have communicated with us at once," said the chief of the police resentfully; "we might have caught the villains."

"And probably found me a dead man; no, no, my good Krapotkine, he acted for the best; he believed I had gone on a young man's escapade, and wished to save my reputation. Lavrovski is not to blame."

"No doubt your Imperial Highness has every influence to avert the disgrace from Count Lavrovski's head. In the meanwhile I and my men are ready to escort your Imperial Highness back to Petersburg."

"Like a schoolboy who has been playing truant. Well! I shall be glad to leave this city, with its unpleasant associations. We will start homewards to-night."

And Nicholas Alexandrovitch, tired and enervated, dismissed the chief of the police with a smile and a bow.

It had been a curious adventure, and he wondered if he would ever hear the true version of it, or if those who had so daringly planned it would ever come under the far-reaching clutches of the police.

That this was extremely unlikely both he himself and the astute Krapotkine were fully aware when, during the rapid journey back to Petersburg, they discussed the possibility of bringing the miscreants to justice.

The Tsarevitch himself had never as much as set eyes yet on any of his abductors; the only one he had ever seen throughout his captivity had been Maria Stefanowna, of whose face he caught but a mere glimpse in the fiaker that eventful night, when she was disguised as the odalisque, and the two or three moujiks, purported to be deaf-mute, who had been his servants and guardians in his imprisonment. That, through a description of them made by the Tsarevitch, some faint clue might be obtained was just possible; but Krapotkine well knew that the chances of tracing a man by mere verbal description are excessively remote. As for the house, or even the locality where so exalted a prisoner had lived and breathed for over two weeks, there was no hope of ever arriving at a conclusion as to its whereabouts. The Tsarevitch was a complete stranger in the city, and could not even have told in which direction it lay. The outside of the house he had never seen, nor anything in it, save the two rooms he had inhabited.

The chief of the police bit his moustache in impotent fury, when he realised how magnificently the whole plot had been carried through, and how, in all probability, the daring conspirators would also escape after the great victory they had gained, in the liberation of Dunajewski and his brother Nihilists.

The same night on which their prisoner was once more restored to liberty, at about the same hour, the members of the brotherhood sat once more together in committee, smoking and chatting gaily. The president, who seemed quite restored to his former urbane self, was talking of Maria Stefanowna, whom he regarded as the saviour of them all. All the older men looked up to her as one who had prevented lifelong remorse from haunting the rest of their lives; and the younger ones as the prophetess of their Utopia, who would lead them to victory through her wise counsels and daring deeds.

There was eager expectancy on all the faces round, and many were the glances that stole towards the clock that seemed to be ticking in a provokingly slow way.

Ah! at last! there was the sound of footsteps outside, and soon the door was opened, and four of the comrades, including Mirkovitch, came in. They were greeted with a unanimous cry of inquiry, "Well?"

"Well!" said Mirkovitch, "the last chapter of our sensational novel is closed. Dunajewski and our comrades are by now on their way to England, and Nicholas Alexandrovitch is discussing with Krapotkine the possibility of bringing us all into the clutches of the Third Section."

Derisive laughter, full of gaiety, triumph, and enthusiasm, greeted this suggestion.

"That is an impossibility," they all asserted; "they have not the faintest clue."

They refused to listen to Mirkovitch's threatening speeches, his regrets at the happy escape of one of the tyrant's brood. They were discussing Dunajewski's surprise when he found himself a free man, with a passport, allowing him and his comrades to go whither they chose. One or two of the older members had gone to meet them at Hamburg with money and clothes to enable them to embark for England.

Maria Stefanowna had gone with them. It had been thought wiser that she should be out of the country for a little while, both for her own safety and for that of all her comrades.

Let them, out there at Petersburg, do their worst to discover the originators of this great plot so complete in its victory. What could they do when there was no clue?

"None!" said Mirkovitch quietly, "except our papers, which we have entrusted to Volenski, and of which and of our messenger we have not the slightest news."

If his wish was to damp an enthusiasm which he had not kindled, he certainly fully succeeded. It certainly did seem strange that no news of any sort or kind had been heard of the young Pole, since the night when he had announced his departure, under the protection of His Eminence the Cardinal, for the following morning; and nearly a fortnight had elapsed since then.

Though every confidence was still felt in the messenger, there was a curious restlessness--a vague, undefined fear appreciable when his name was mentioned. The president's uneasiness at the topic was also decidedly ominous; but he evidently, though unable to account for Volenski's protracted silence, would not allow the slightest doubt to be cast on his absent young friend's good name.

The ugly word "traitor" had been whispered once or twice, but not in his hearing. The older men believed in some untoward accident to the messenger, but still hoped that the papers were safe.

It would be such a crushing blow, after the great victory, to have to face defeat so complete, so humiliating, with no hope of vengeance, now that their hostage was out of their hands; those papers were so hopelessly compromising, both to them and to those at Petersburg to whom they were addressed, that not one of them could possibly hope to escape.

The president, as usual, tried to reassure them, and to calm the tide of feelings that began to rise high against Volenski.

"Remember," he said, "we must not condemn him unheard. After all, our papers cannot at this moment be in wrong hands, or we should not be sitting here unmolested, and what occurred an hour ago would not have taken place."

That was obviously the case, and all felt perhaps a trifle reassured. Anyhow, it was but waste of time to sit and discuss Volenski's possible movements at this moment. News, good and bad, was bound to reach them sooner or later, that would clear up this mystery.

Some future meeting in a day or two was arranged, and all prepared to leave. As Mirkovitch was about to turn to the door, something in the eyes of the old president made him pause and wait, till they two were left, the sole occupants of the room.

"You know something, Lobkowitz--what is it?"

"Look at this letter I received this morning."

"From Volenski?"

"Read it."

Mirkovitch began reading half aloud:

"Charing Cross Hotel, London.

"My dear Lobkowitz, --You will wonder at the place I am writing from, and still more so at what I can possibly be doing there. I have been at death's door, my good friend, owing to a series of the most terrible misfortunes that could befall any man. Do not be alarmed, though the news I am at last able to send you is of a most terrible kind. The papers are out of my possession--' "

Here a half-suppressed oath escaped Mirkovitch's lips, and his hands clenched themselves over the almost illegible letter, obviously written by a sick man, hardly able to hold the pen.

"For God's sake, read on," said the president, "there is not a moment to be lost."

"'The most fatal conglomeration of mishaps' [continued Mirkovitch] 'originally deprived me of them, at the very moment when I had placed them in what I considered absolute safety. Since that terrible hour all my energies have been spent in recovering them, for, although I have always known where they were, they always have by some almost diabolical coincidence evaded my grasp at the very moment when my hand was, so to speak, upon them. At last the strain on my brain shattered my health, and I have been thrown on a bed of sickness. Again I say, do not be alarmed. To the best of my belief no mortal eye has, as yet, rested upon our papers, and our secrets are still our own. But I am now too feeble to act alone; I must have help from one of you, and I may want a great deal of money. I dare not ask what happened in Vienna, if our comrades are free, if, not hearing from me, you have dared to act, or if Nicholas Alexandrovitch still remains a hostage. For God's sake, I beg of you, my friend, not to mistrust me, and, if possible, not to alarm our comrades unnecessarily. All is not lost yet, but I must have your help. Come as soon as you can. --Your friend and comrade,

Iván Stefanovitch Volenski.'"

Mirkovitch did not speak, made no comment; he crushed the letter in his hand, and there was a dark scowl on his face.

The president waited for a while, he knew the fanatic Russian's violent temper; he began to fear for his young sick friend, who already seemed to have suffered so much.

"I cannot go, unfortunately," he said at last, "and there is no one I could trust more completely than you, Mirkovitch."

"Oh! I will go, all right enough," said Mirkovitch, "and take the money, since money is wanted; but," he added fiercely, "let Iván look to himself if our papers fall into wrong hands."

"It was a blunder, at worst, I feel sure," said Lobkowitz; "Iván is no traitor, I pledge you my life as to that."

"I am not accusing him," rejoined the other impatiently, "but the trusted messenger of our brotherhood had no right to blunder."

"Well, we know very little so far; do not let us imagine the worst. He writes hopefully after all."

"I had better start to-night," said Mirkovitch. "Can you let me have the funds? He says much may be wanted; for bribery, I suppose."

"Come and see me at my house before you start, and I will have everything ready for you. . . And . . . Mirkovitch," he added, "do not condemn unheard. Remember, Iván is young, and has our cause just as much at heart as you have."

"Well, if he has, he certainly has it in a different way," said Mirkovitch as he shook the president's hand, and prepared to leave.

The latter sighed as he tried to read the Russian's thoughts through his deeply sunken eyes, tried to fathom if there lurked some danger there for his young friend. Then, half reassured, he gave Mirkovitch a parting handshake, and watched the old fanatic's figure slowly disappearing down the stairs.